decorated initial 'I' n John Henry Newman's sermon "Moses the Type of Christ," Newman models a sustained example of typological interpretation as practiced by Victorian Christians. Newman's examination of Moses as a type of Christ reveals not only the process by which Victorian readers engaged the Bible, but also some of the problems generated by such an approach. The root of the difficulty with typological interpretation is its uneasy relationship with the significance of the type. Typological interpretation was seen as being more attentive to the specific details of the text that contained the type than more allegorical interpretations, in which the purpose of the source material was to contain the higher, allegorical significance. Yet, many typological interpretations do interpretive violence to the texts they interpret, a pattern that is visible in Newman's sermon.

1. Newman's first engagement with typological parallels comes when he links the plight of the Jews in Egypt to the suffering of all humans in the earthly plain. His comparison is exacting:

We are by nature in a strange country; God was our first Father, and His Presence our dwelling-place: but we were cast out of paradise for sinning, and are in a dreary land, a valley of darkness and the shadow of death. "We are born in this spiritual Egypt, the land of strangers. Still we have old recollections about us, and broken traditions, of our original happiness and dignity as freemen. Thoughts come across us from time to time which show that we were born for better things than to be slaves; yet by nature slaves we are, slaves to the Devil. He is our hard task-master, as Pharaoh oppressed the Israelites; so much the worse than he, in that his chains, though we do not see them, become more and more heavy every year.

Towards the end of this excerpt, Newman suggests that not only is Moses a type of Jesus, but that the Pharaoh is a type of Satan. If we attend to the details of the Old Testament, we will see that throughout the book of Exodus, God intervenes to harden Pharaoh's heart, causing him to refuse to free the Israelites. Though the exact meaning of this hardening of the heart is disputed, many believe that it lessens somewhat the Pharaoh's culpability, as God is employing him in fulfillment of a divine plan. Surely Newman does not intend to foster sympathy for the Devil. But given the specificity of the rest of his interpretation, how can he justify excluding this parallel?

2. In the same passage, Newman's "we" seems to suggest that all those alive are types of the Jews in Egypt. Later, Newman states "This state of mind [not repenting of one's sins] brings upon man a judgment heavier than all the plagues of Egypt, — a judgment compared with which that darkness which could be felt is as the sun's brightness, and the thunders and hail are as the serene sky, — the wrath to come." So then, are the Egyptians types of those who refuse to turn away from sin? Why does Newman choose not to make this more explicit?

3. Another parallel Newman draws between Moses and Jesus is how they both intervened to save humankind from their own sin: "Observe, rather than Israel should forfeit the promised land, he [Moses] here offered to give up his own portion in it, and the exchange was accepted. He was excluded, dying in sight, not in enjoyment of Canaan, while the people went in under Joshua. This was a figure of Him that was to come. Our Saviour Christ died, that we might live: He consented to lose the light of God's countenance, that we might gain it." Moses asks God to punish him instead of the Israelites, and Jesus dies to save all from sin. Though they are both Mediators between humans and God, they seem to suggest differing relationships with God. When Moses talks to God, he says "'Lord, why doth Thy wrath wax hot against Thy [127/128] people? Tarn from Thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against Thy people.'" Here, Moses almost seems to be rebuking God. At the very least Moses is arguing (or reasoning) with Him. Yet, Jesus and God are as one: there can be no difference of opinion between them. What are we to make of Moses' relationship with God, then?

4. When Newman says "but they who are the pure in heart, like Joseph; or the meek among men, like Moses; or faithful found among the faithless, as Daniel; these men see God all through life in the face of His Eternal Son," he seems to imply that all these Old Testament prophets knew of Christ. What problems (if any) does this pose for Newman's sermon?

5. How does typological interpretation (as practiced by Newman) differ from mere allegory? How sensitive is Newman to the details of his source material?

Overview John Henry Cardinal
Newman Religion Sermons

Last modified 19 September 2004